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Chapter XIV A TERRIBLE ORDEAL
FOR the next four or five days the work on the hull of the ill-fated "San Philipo" proceeded apace; for, as the announcement had been made that all hands would be entitled to a share in the proceeds, the crew loyally assisted in the operations, working long hours, in spite of the terrific heat, to bring about the ultimate success of the undertaking.

The natives of the island were very attentive in their visits, and they gave no signs of animosity, but, on the contrary, seemed more like curious children than the savages who had attempted to board the "Fortuna." Although we bore in mind the warning given in nautical works against the treachery of the inhabitants of these islands, we came to the conclusion that these were too thoroughly overawed by our armed strength to attempt to molest us further; so excursions were frequently made on shore without observing any cause or symptoms of aggression. Nevertheless, none of us ever set foot on the island without being armed.

"The watering party are going ashore this afternoon," remarked Dr. Conolly to me on the fifth day after our arrival off the island. "I think I'll have a run up to the village. Would you like to come with me?"

"Rather!" I replied enthusiastically.

"Then ask your father if he has any objection."

"By all means go," replied the pater, when I mentioned the matter; "but, mind you, no skylarking. Take your sporting rifle with you, but on no account shoot at anything, for the natives have peculiar notions, regarding certain animals with almost religious veneration; and should you shoot one of their pet pigs—almost the only animals on these islands—you may bring the whole tribe of savages about your ears."

So that afternoon we went ashore, and, leaving the men with the water-breakers, the doctor and I, accompanied by Yadillah, made our way towards the village, followed, as usual, by a throng of curious natives.

As we passed through the coco-nut grove swarms of pigs and fowls crossed our path, while overhead we saw numerous brilliantly feathered birds, which, curiously enough, were songless. Presently we came to the part of the road where the little stream babbled by the side of the path.

"I wonder where that brook runs to," remarked Dr. Conolly, glancing towards the thicket into which it plunged. "I don't remember seeing the spot where it joins the sea."

"It will be a hard matter to follow it," I replied, pointing to the dense clusters of prickly shrub that formed a formidable barrier over its course. "But surely it must reach the sea somewhere."

"Not necessarily; but, if it does, its outlet must be on the shore off which the 'Fortuna' is lying, otherwise it must defy the laws of gravity and climb the hill on our right. My impression is, however, that it falls into a vast chasm, and the basaltic nature of the rocks strengthens my conviction."

"That sounds interesting."

"It does. As the island is composed largely of basalt, and shows signs of volcanic action, there can be no doubt as to its origin. Thousands of years ago a mighty earthquake must have shot this and hundreds of other islands above the surface, and from the floor of the vast submarine plateau the coral builders are doing their work of making new ground."

"Shall we try to trace the course of this stream, then? Yadillah has a large knife, so that we can clear a path through the scrub."

"Well, there's no harm in attempting it. Yadillah, you black imp!"

"Yas, sahib."

"Cut a path for us through this stuff." The Arab attacked the undergrowth vigorously, and, working as he went, disappeared in the tunnel that he had cut above the stream. Presently he returned with the information that the thicket extended only a short way, and that the brook ran through a dense coco-nut grove.

"Lead on, then, Yadillah," exclaimed the doctor. "You follow, Reggie, and I'll bring up the rear."

"Clear off, you niggers," he added, speaking authoritatively to the natives, who were regarding our movements with ill-concealed excitement. The doctor's words and actions had the desired effect, for the crowd of followers stood back, jabbering incessantly, save a few who made off towards the village.

Although we kept our thick water-tight boots on, the water was deliciously cool as we waded down the stream, bending low to escape the rough tendrils that overhung the low tunnel that the Arab had cut for us. A few steps brought us to the other side of the vegetable barrier, and, as Yadillah had said, the brook flowed through a fairly dense palm-grove, its bed being composed of hard, slippery rock.

After we had proceeded a few hundred yards the doctor suddenly exclaimed—

"Hullo! This looks interesting. There's a well-worn path here. I suppose it leads to the village."

"But why interesting?"

"For one reason, there is no actual necessity for the natives to make a well-worn path to the brook, as plenty of water can be had in the village; for another, I think we have stumbled on some secret place where these savages hold their religious ceremonies. I am not sure, mind you, but the circumstances point that way."

The path descended abruptly into what appeared to be a vast circular hollow, though the dense clusters of trees and bushes prevented us from seeing the opposite side of the rock-bound circle. The stream now became a rushing torrent, leaping from rock to rock in a series of spray-fringed cascades, and the only sound that broke the silence of the spot was the noise of the falling water.

"This must have been the crater of an active volcano at one time," said the doctor in a low tone, as if influenced by the solitude of the spot. "I think we'll find I am right about the outlet of the stream."

At length we reached the bottom of the vast cavity, and in the unaccustomed twilight caused by the foliage and the overhanging rocks (though it was still broad daylight) we could see a large pool of dark water, and, surrounding this lakelet, were a number of posts, each about six feet in height, and most of them were surmounted by a grinning skull, while a fetid atmosphere hung over the place like a pall.

I felt the colour leave my face at the horror of the sight, and, glancing at the doctor, I noticed that his jaw was firmly set and his eyebrows knitted in grim determination. Yadillah, though used to scenes of cruelty in his younger days, turned an ashy grey, and I heard him mutter a sentence in which the word "Allah" caught my ear.

"What does it mean?" I whispered.

"They are the skulls of men killed in tribal fights, to take the mildest view of the situation," replied Dr. Conolly. "But I should not be surprised if this is the scene of gruesome practices of cannibalism."

"Come on, let's get away from this horrible place," I exclaimed.

"One moment," he replied, and, picking up a piece of stone, he threw it into the pool, which, although it obviously was fed by the stream, was absolutely unruffled on its surface.

The ripples caused by the stone had barely reached the edge of the pond when a loathsome head appeared above the water and a pair of lidless eyes stared malignantly at us. Then, with an eel-like motion, the monster began to swim towards the spot where we were standing. It was a gigantic water-snake.

"Ugh, you brute!" shouted the doctor, and, regardless of the consequences, he drew his Webley revolver and sent a .441-in. bullet crashing through the monster's head. With a quick motion the reptile turned and disappeared beneath the surface, discolouring the dark water with its blood; but hardly had the echoes of the report died away when the surrounding brushwood seemed alive with men, who, uttering furious cries, made directly for us.

The surprise was complete, for before the doctor could raise his weapon or the rest of us lift a hand in self-defence we were borne to the ground and bound hand and foot with ropes of coco-fibre.

The next few moments seemed like a dream. I was dimly conscious of the horde of yelling, savages, who danced around and over our prostrate bodies with every attitude of demoniac fury. Three of their number, evidently priests, judging by their fantastic garb and the bizarre markings of red and white paint that concealed their faces, stood by the edge of the pool solemnly calling upon their outraged deity; but whether the brute was dead or only wounded I could not ascertain, for their efforts were in vain.

At one time it seemed as if the natives would have thrown us into the gruesome pool, but after a great deal of excited jabbering they eventually lashed each of us to a long bamboo and, carried between two men, we were taken towards the village, the shouting natives following in a disorderly mob.

The path led to a gateway other than the one by which we had entered a few days previously, but we were carried to the open space in front of the chief's house. It was a very different reception from our last visit that now awaited us, for the chief, after receiving a report from the priests, stepped over to where the doctor was lying and placed his foot on his neck. He then addressed the crowd, and at the conclusion of his speech a mighty shout went up, and, lifted shoulder high, we were borne into the inner stockade, the same which Dr. Conolly had tried to investigate, and were placed side by side on a low wicker bench.

Though tightly bound to the bamboo pole, I could move my head slightly—just enough, in fact, to see my companions. I was lying between them. The doctor was writhing ineffectually in his bonds, his face red with the exertion; Yadillah's features were absolutely impassive, the Asiatic fatalism having supreme mastery over any emotion under which he might be labouring.

We were alone, for the priests and the crowd of natives were without the gates, making the place ring with their blood-curdling shouts.

At last by a great effort I raised my head sufficiently to look before me, and facing us was a huge wooden image, bedaubed with paint and feathers, while in front was a row of skulls painted a vivid red and an immense block of polished stone. What was behind me I could not observe, but I knew that there was a fire burning within a few yards of where we were lying.

"Reggie," said the doctor in a low tone that I hardly recognized, "I am afraid we are done for. It's all my fault."

"What's going to happen?" I asked fearfully.

"I cannot say," he replied. "But unless we are rescued I doubt whether we'll see to-morrow's sun. Idiot that I was to let fly at that pond brute!"

"Do you think they heard the shot on board the 'Fortuna'? If so, they'll think something is wrong and will send a search-party to look for us."

"The distance was too great, and we were in a deep hollow. Our only chance is that they will search for us when we do not return by sunset. Are you hurt?"

"No, only stiff. Are you?"

"My neck is pretty sore where that brute of a chief trod on it. I should dearly like to have the chance of settling with him. Ah! here they come again!"

Five or six of the savages approached, bringing with them another bound prisoner, a native, whom they placed next to Yadillah. Then, unlashing us from the bamboos, they cut away most of our clothing and lashed us to the block of stone in front of the idol, our arms being extended above our heads in an excruciating position.

The native prisoner was on my extreme left, Yadillah between him and me, and Dr. Conolly on the right. The priests then bent over the native and did something which caused him to groan dismally. They did the same to the Arab, but not a sound came from his lips; then it was my turn. I could not see what they were doing, but in my imagination I felt the sharp point of a knife against my bare chest, and I could hardly forbear from shrieking aloud. However, I still lived, and by craning my neck I saw that the priests were painting a black spot surrounded by a white circle on the doctor's ribs immediately over his heart. Whatever it meant, we had all been treated in the same way; but the fact of being fastened to what was undoubtedly an altar-stone told me that we were to be sacrificed to the grinning idol.

At length the sun set, and the short tropical twilight gave place to intense darkness. The village was as silent as the tomb, and, stretched upon that awful bed, my ears were intently listening for the faintest sound, while my eyes tried to discern the grim outlines of the idol, expecting every moment to be my last.

Suddenly above the distant palm-covered hills the disc of the full moon appeared, and instantly the air was filled with the shouts of the savages, who, beating drums and clapping their hands, poured in through the gate of the inner stockade in a compact body, till the courtyard of the temple was filled to overflowing.

The bright lunar beams cast the shadow of the idol slightly in front of our feet, but the priests, using some rough mechanical device, thrust the terrible image forward so that its shade, as the moon rose higher, would inevitably fall athwart our bodies. Into the monster's outstretched hand was placed a long brass-hilted sword, which overhung us in a menacing manner.

The shouting ceased as if by magic, and the priests with much ceremony killed three fowls, holding their bodies towards the moon and afterwards sprinkling the idol with their blood. Then, holding the doctor's revolver in a suppliant attitude, one of the savage officiates presented it to the idol; but as he did so he must have touched the trigger, for the weapon exploded, sending a bullet through the priest's arm and bringing down one of the natives in the crowd of worshippers. Superstitious awe fell upon the multitude; but with marvellous self-control the wounded priest picked up the revolver and, regardless of his arm, which hung helpless at his side, placed it at the feet of the idol.

In absolute silence the worshippers looked towards the priests, who in turn were eagerly regarding the upward path of the satellite.

During that awful time I lay in a sort of stupor, realizing my danger, yet filled with a complete indifference as to my fate. I was dimly conscious of the grinning idol, the fiendish painted faces of the priests, and the shouts of the crowd, which sounded like the subdued roar of a number of wild beasts; but the whole time my thoughts were fixed upon my home in peaceful Cornwall, and the various trifling incidents of my life flashed in quick succession through my brain.

The priests, one holding the knife in his uplifted hand, again watched the progress of the fateful shadow as it slowly climbed the Arab's side and approached his bare chest. In a firm voice the Moslem made the declaration of his faith: "Walla ghalib illah Allah!" he cried defiantly, and awaited the fatal stroke.

But it never came. The priest gave a hasty glance towards the moon, then, with a yell of superstitious terror, he dropped the knife and ran screeching through the crowd. The other priests followed his example, the panic became general, and in less than a minute the temple was deserted, save by the bound but living men, while from the village came the terrified wailings of the demoralized savages.

I spoke to the doctor, my voice broken and feeble, but no reply came from his lips; then I turned my head towards the Arab, who was vigorously but ineffectually struggling with his bonds, and he, too, had his eyes fixed on the moon.

My torpor had passed, and now I was eager to see the cause of this sudden diversion in our favour, and, following the direction of Yadillah's glance, I saw a dark shadow slowly creeping over the surface of the moon, and already its light was waning.

It was an eclipse; the penumbra had extended over half the satellite's hemisphere, and the umbra was rapidly following. To the ignorant savages the phenomenon could have but one meaning. They had offered sacrifices to the goddess of the night, and the goddess by hiding her face had scorned them, and dire calamity was bound to follow this mark of rejection.

How long I lay on that stone of sacrifice I cannot tell, but throughout the whole of the total eclipse, when everything was as dark as the blackest night and nature was hushed into absolute silence, I was fully awake to the possibilities of rescue or death. At length the umbra began to pass slowly across the moon, and a dim, greyish light faintly played on the grim outlines of the temple. In another two hours it would be daylight, and the savages would return and hale us to our deaths.

But presently I heard the sound of footsteps, not the light tread of the barefooted savage, but the tramp of booted men, and lusty voices shouted our names. We were saved!

"This way! Here, in the temple!" I cried as loud as my exhausted strength would permit; and as the crew of the "Fortuna," headed by my father, rushed into the stockade my senses left me, and I fell into a deep swoon.



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